Stories From the Front: St Catharines’ Wartime Sources Part Three

Member of the Welland Canal force patrolling the locks of the Welland Canal during the First World War.

The declaration of war between England and Germany in 1914 was met with great enthusiasm among the local population of St. Catharines. The St. Catharines Standard reported on August 5, 1914,

“Never in the history of St. Catharines were loyalty and patriotism and enthusiasm so wildly demonstrated as during last night. A crowd numbering thousands gathered in front of The Standard office reading the bulletins and when the news came that Germany had declared war on England, the people cheered and cheered and cheered again. Hats were thrown into the air and solid citizens slapped each other on the back and yelled themselves hoarse.”

The conflict that would later be known as the First World War was initially imperially motivated. Canada being a Dominion of the British Empire did not have an independent foreign policy. This meant if England declared war so did the Dominion. It is difficult today to understand anyone celebrating going to war, knowing what we do about the realities of that conflict, but in August 1914 the community was ready to do their part to support the war effort.

What did that mean for the people living in St. Catharines, so far away from the front? One might think that the entire war effort was devoted to sending our soldiers, money and supplies to help the Allies at the front. While this was certainly a major contribution of communities across Canada, closer to home there was even more to think about. The canal that the city was built around suddenly became a target.

Creation of the Welland Canal Force

Within days of Canada declared war on Germany in 1914 the 19th Lincoln Regiment and the 44th Lincoln and Welland Regiment were placed on active duty. The men from these regiments were charged with protecting potential targets in Niagara including the hydroelectric sites, bridges, railways and the canal. This protection detail became known as the Welland Canal Force. The threat to the canal was perceived to be so serious that detachments of the force were stationed at each lock, from Port Dalhousie to Port Colborne. All vessels were inspected by members of the force on entering the canal.

The Welland Canal Force grew to oversee the security of multiple potential regional targets. These included munitions factories, border crossings, hydro-electric plants, and landmarks. The orders to the company, as summarized by Colonel Burleigh were, “the properties adjacent to the canal and locks were declared a ‘war zone’ and anyone found in the ‘zone’ during daylight would be arrested, or at night, shot.”[i]

It is difficult to imagine being shot for going by the Canal today. The banks of the canal are now used for recreational purposes and sightseeing as tourists watch the ships go through the locks. However, during the First World War there was at least one instance that saw an evening intruder shot. Thankfully, in this case the intruder turned out to be an escaped pig, and the errant farmer was fined for the incident. While no people were harmed in this case, it did demonstrate that the Welland Canal Force intended to follow the colonel’s orders.

Perceptions of the Force

Notwithstanding the community’s early enthusiasm for going to war, they did not embrace the presence of the force as an important contribution to the war effort. The Welland Canal Force continued to do their duty despite community pushback. One incident led the St. Catharines Standard to declare that,

Port [Dalhousie] is under martial law in earnest. A squad of soldiers took an unruly canal helper to a miserable little stone coop and thrust him in to sober up. Another citizen who felt he had a perfect right to cross Lock Street in spite of the guard felt the unpleasant graze of an unsheathed bayonet upon his arm. .[ii]

The force was not seen as important as the Canadian Expeditionary Forces who were doing ‘important’ war work. The nature of the work the force was doing at home meant members sometimes found themselves the target of ridicule. In a letter to the editor the force expressed this opinion,

It has not been the habit of the present Welland Canal Guard to grumble, but we certainly think it is due time that the citizens of St. Catharines show some little appreciation of our efforts on this duty. We think, sir, that after the number of slurs and cutting remarks that have been made about us, both in your paper and out of it, the public will do something to make a life a little more pleasant for us on this disagreeable task.[iii]

Who were the people who performed this “disagreeable task”? For some, the force was requisite service undertaken before moving to the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and hence to Europe. Others were men who had served in the CEF, had been injured or sent home for other reasons but were still looking to serve. Some were men who wanted to join the CEF but were deemed unfit due to illnesses or physical limitations. Other Welland Canal Force members were youth too young to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force but could, between the ages of 14 and 17, enlist in the militia with the permission of their parents. These young men were given the roles of bandsmen, trumpeters, and buglers.


Although stationed at home, the Welland Canal Force did not escape casualties. More than thirty men died from illness and tragic accidents while serving on the force. These causalities must have been acutely felt by their loved ones. Those whose loved one left for the front acknowledged the dangers that they faced. Those whose loved one remained in Niagara guarding local structures, were in less imminent danger but still faced losses.  

How did these men die? Illnesses like pneumonia took the lives of some of the men, but the biggest culprits were drowning or related injuries. Fourteen of the thirty casualties were ascribed to drowning. Deaths during service earned a Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstone. Canal Force members buried in cemeteries throughout the region have received these headstones. One Canal Force member buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery that received a Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstone was Private Thornton Wallace Dunn. Private Dunn fell into a lock while on duty. A life ring was thrown down to him, but he was unable to maintain a hold on it. Thornton drowned at the age of 21 in April of 1917. He had attempted to join the Canadian Expeditionary Forces on four occasions before his death. Despite the Canal Force not being perceived as glamorous as the Canadian Expeditionary Forces the members were serving their country in a role that was essential to homeland security.

Von Pappen Conspiracy

The name of the force suggests that the primary concern was with the Welland Canal and ensuring that vital shipments continued to get through the seaway system. Certainly, there was a need for protecting the Canal as there were known plans by the Germans to sabotage the Canal to prevent materials getting from Canada to Europe. The most notable plan to destroy the canal has become known as the Von Pappen conspiracy. Von Pappen served as a military attaché, in the then neutral United States. He was based out of New York City. Von Pappen sent his agent Paul Koeing to determine the best way to destroy the Welland Canal. The agent came to St. Catharines and took rooms at the Welland House. He spent time surveying the canal from Port Colborne all the way to Port Dalhousie. His mission was to return and let German agents know where to plant explosives that would do the most debilitating damage to the canal.

The agents that were to plant the explosives were meant to pose as a tree removal service when crossing the border. When the team arrived, they saw how well protected the Welland Canal was and they decided to forgo their plan. Had this plan succeeded it is unlikely that the canal would have been repaired swiftly. Work that had started on the Welland Ship Canal stopped because of the war making it difficult to acquire equipment and a work force. The project did not commence again until after the armistice was declared. These conditions would have made massive repairs to the Canal unfeasible had the plot been successful. How do we know about this plan, since it didn’t happen? Paul Koeing was on his way back to Germany after this plot when his ship was diverted to England. He revealed the plan under questioning. Von Pappen returned to Germany where he subsequently rose to the role of Chancellor in the 1930s and Vice Chancellor when Hitler he came to power.

The Force’s legacy is found in the defence they provided to the canal and other important sites during the First World War enabling the larger scale Canadian war effort to proceed. Had they not been in place in St. Catharines during the First World War the story could have been very different than it is today.

This post is part three of our Stories from the Front series. Catch all four parts of this series using the tag or category ‘Stories from the Front’.

Abbey Stansfield revised the Stories from the Front program and is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

[i] William A. Smy, Guarding Niagara: The Welland Canal Force, 1914-1918 (Lieutenant Colonel William A. Smy OMM, CD, UE, 2012), 7.

[ii] ibid 32.

[iii] ibid 36

One comment

  1. I found this story very interesting and learned a lot of fascinating things of local history,,,,,will be looking up the two previousl parts of the series. THANK YOU for the history lesson and the entertainment…..really appreciate your commitment to the community……members of my family both young and old took part in and enjoyed the Family Day presentation.. Thanks again Keep up the good work !

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